Modernity Of The Holocaust: History 101 Exam Question

26 Jun

Exam Essay Question:
World War II and the Origins of the Cold War, 1939-49. The Holocaust
On the basis of Zygmund Bauman’s text Uniqueness and Normality of the Holocaust, please discuss in what way the Holocaust can be considered a modern crime. According to Bauman, how did modernity create the conditions for the Nazi mass murder, and to what extend did the existence of a modern bureaucracy and modern division of labor contribute to the crime?

Modernity Of The Holocaust

Modernity represents the mode we apply in today’s society to accomplish critical tasks. We divide otherwise insurmountable tasks into small, relatively simple, steps. Zygmunt Bauman describes how the modernity of the Holocaust sets it apart from other historical instances of genocide. The parenthetical categorization of the “modern … way” really highlights the “intellect” of these acts; “rational, planned, scientifically informed, expert, efficiently managed, co-ordinated” (Bauman, 89). Nazi German performed this well, beginning with ostracism of the Jews, segregation of the Jews and continuing to elimination of the Jews. With Germany’s expansion into surrounding regions, they felt it necessary to also “cleanse” these new areas.

Modern bureaucracy break the process into individual, autonomous steps; establishing a bureaucratic method as a means to an end. Each step serves no purpose on its own, but taken in whole finishes the task. Bureaucracy does not use internal advancement, so the upper echelon does not have first hand knowledge of the subordinates acts.

Modern division of labor assigns the steps to individual roles. These roles need no knowledge of what other steps are performed or the “final solution”. Division of labor separates the technical responsibility from the moral responsibility. Individuals perform their given step to achieve a greater good; a “clean” world.

To analogize these steps to the act of shooting someone: 1) Alex loads the gun; 2) Bob aims the gun; 3) Charles turns off the safety; and, 4) Dave pulls the trigger. If any of these steps are missing, the act is not executed. Likewise, the performance of any one of these steps on their own is, for the most part, harmless. Therefore, each respondent can dispel any responsibility by pointing at the others. For example, if Charles leaves the safety on, Bob aiming the gun and Dave pulling the trigger would have no consequences. This allows Bob and Dave to cast responsibility on Charles.


Bauman, Zygmunt, “The Uniqueness and Normality of the Holocaust”, in The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings, eds. Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni Press, 2003), 82-89.

Hansen, Valerie and Kenneth Curtis. Voyages in World History, Volume 2 Since 1500. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

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Posted by on June 26, 2011 in Class Writing, History


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